Air Force Veterans and Mesothelioma

Mesothelioma is a rare type of cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. Asbestos was commonly used in the construction of Air Force bases up until the early 1980s, as it proved useful as a flame retardant. As a result, many people in the military, especially those in close quarters, were exposed to the mineral and may now have a higher risk of developing mesothelioma.

Mesothelioma Vets - Air Force

History of Mesothelioma and the Air Force

Despite the rarity of mesothelioma, veterans make up roughly one-third of the patients diagnosed in the United States. This is due to the increased likelihood of asbestos exposure for people serving in the military during the 20th century. Veterans of certain military branches, like the Air Force, have a greater risk of developing mesothelioma due to the heavy use of the carcinogenic mineral asbestos by the military during this time.

Although the Air Force began in 1907 as a division of the Army, it didn’t gain its status as its own branch of the military until 40 years later. After the Air Force broke off from the U.S. Army in 1947, the newly formed military branch needed to build its own bases across the world. The construction of these bases included large amounts of asbestos insulation. The Air Force also utilized asbestos when building aircraft for use throughout and after WWII, putting pilots, mechanics, and anyone else in proximity to the equipment in danger of breathing in asbestos.

What Is Mesothelioma?

Mesothelioma is a rare cancer caused by exposure to the mineral asbestos. Asbestos is a family of minerals that were discovered to be practical in many applications. With asbestos mining in the U.S. starting in the mid-19th century and peaking in the 1970s, the material could be found in more than 3,000 consumer products.

When inhaled or ingested, microscopic asbestos fibers act like thorns. After they enter the body, they attach to the mesothelium, the membrane responsible for lubricating organs in the chest and abdomen. The asbestos fibers become embedded in this membrane and create friction and inflammation, eventually leading to the formation of scar tissue. In the case of mesothelioma, this results in cell mutations and the formation of cancerous tumors.

Pleural mesothelioma, a cancer that affects the lungs, is the most common form of this rare disease, since the asbestos fibers travel directly into the lungs when inhaled. Peritoneal and pericardial mesothelioma are less common. Doctors believe that people may develop these forms of cancer when asbestos makes its way into the bloodstream.

Asbestos Use in the Air Force

The U.S. military employed asbestos as a “miraculous” mineral in many building projects. Its durable, fibrous nature made it easy to weave into textiles and use as fire-proof insulation. This made it useful in the construction of barracks, boiler rooms, and more. The Air Force also used asbestos in their planes, making pilots who spent long hours flying and fighting in the air extra susceptible to asbestos exposure.
Unfortunately, though it wasn’t known at the time, what the U.S. military thought was a miracle was actually a potent carcinogen.

Where Were Air Force Veterans Exposed to Asbestos?

Some airmen are more likely to have been exposed to asbestos — and therefore at higher risk of developing mesothelioma — than others. Some of the most dangerous Air Force roles with regard to asbestos included:

  • Aircraft Handler
  • Aircraft Mechanic
  • Electrical Systems Specialist
  • Environmental Systems Specialist
  • Fire Control Technician
  • Metalsmith

While certain occupations within the Air Force were more likely to work around asbestos, all airmen were at risk of exposure. Asbestos is a friable (easy to crumble) material, making it easy for it to be carried across the base. Soldiers, mechanics, technicians, and even custodians could carry microscopic asbestos fibers from one area of the base to another on their clothes and in their hair. That made common areas, whether they had been built with asbestos or not, a dangerous place for people coming and going.

Symptoms of Mesothelioma

Due to mesothelioma’s long latency period, symptoms may not appear for 20 to 50 years after asbestos exposure. These symptoms are also common in other conditions and have caused doctors to misdiagnose the disease. If you served in the United States Air Force and have developed any of the below symptoms, speak with a physician about the possibility of mesothelioma.

  • Abdominal pain and swelling
  • Anemia
  • Bloating
  • Body aches
  • Bowel obstruction
  • Blood clots
  • Chest pain
  • Coughing up blood
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Difficulty swallowing or breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Fever/night sweats
  • Fluid build up around the lungs
  • Hernia
  • Hoarseness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Persistent dry cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Seizures
  • Vomiting
  • Wheezing
  • Weight loss

These are some of the most common symptoms of mesothelioma, but it is far from all of them. The most important thing to keep in mind is that it could take decades for mesothelioma to surface. If you or a loved one are ill and do not seem to be recovering, look back at your history. It is possible to have been exposed to asbestos many times in the Air Force, even if you didn’t work with asbestos materials (such as insulation) directly.

Next Steps for Air Force Veterans Diagnosed with Mesothelioma

Veterans who have been other-than-dishonorably discharged are eligible for benefits through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). VA benefits could include disability, compensation for medical expenses, and even financial help for family members who lost a veteran to mesothelioma. The VA looks at each case individually and will determine what benefits the veteran, or the veteran’s family, is eligible for.

In other situations, Air Force veterans may be eligible for compensation through legal action. These lawsuits will be filed against companies responsible for the production and use of asbestos, not the United States military. This can also be helpful for veterans or families who have had their eligibility denied by the VA but still need help covering medical bills and loss of income. If you are a veteran or family member and have questions about filing a legal claim, make sure to reach out to a qualified mesothelioma attorney. They’ll be able to walk you through the process and help you with your options.

Author: Cooper Smith – Last Edited: October 30, 2019